Monday, October 16, 2017

They want a new assassin identified in the Gandhi case; they want BJP painted as a peace dove in Kerala

These are unusual days no doubt. But how unusual can unusualness get? Can the murder of Mahatma Gandhi be enacted again to show that he was not killed by the man who killed him? Can a propaganda war, however elaborate, really convince anyone that mass killings of migrant workers are taking place in Kerala? Controversies of this kind are politically loaded. Hence the heat -- and the danger.

The Gandhi assassination twist is typical of the politics that motivate it all, one Hindutva wing at loggerheads with another Hindutva wing. Pankaj Phadnis, a self-confessed devotee of V.D.Savarkar, is exploring judicial routes to prove that Gandhi was killed not by the three bullets Godse had fired but by a fourth one that could only have come from a second assassin. Who? Force 136, a British subversive unit, says Phadnis. He seems keen to demolish the prevailing notion that RSS influence was at work in the Gandhi killing.

Ironically, he was challenged by the Hindu Mahasabha. Here are the astonishing words of the Sabha's national vice president Ashok Sharma: "Both BJP and RSS owe their existence to the ideology conceived by the Hindu Mahasabha and they know that it is only this outfit that can expose the mask these two organisations wear today". They are trying to deny Godse the credit for the assassination, he said, "because they know that the Mahasabha will be marginalised without Godse". Credit for assassination -- that is what ideological faithfulness is all about.

The propaganda war against Kerala is ideological faithfulness gone berserk. This flows from BJP chief Amit Shah getting angry with Kerala and seeing its annexation as a matter of personal prestige. He got angry for two reasons. First, the party's local leaders not only proved ineffective, but got involved in kick-back scandals. Secondly, the public in Kerala -- aided and abetted by the state's incorrigible media -- started making fun of him, something no one else has dared.

In his anger, Shahji ordered daily protests before the CPM office in Delhi, as though the CPM office in Delhi was Kerala. Worse, he brought in stars like Yogi Adityanath to campaign in Kerala. (That journey to Malabar must have been the Yogi's first trip abroad). Of all things, the Yogi picked on Kerala's hospitals and said they should learn from UP hospitals. Obviously the man has a sense of humour.

According to the Amit Shah propaganda machine, Kerala's Communists are killing innocent BJP peaceniks all the time. Again two mistakes here. One, he assumed that the aforesaid incorrigible media is a docile tail-wagger like Delhi's channel media whereas the fact is that the Communists cannot kill even a Communist without the Kerala media pouncing on them. Two, statistics show that 26 Sangh Parivar activists and 21 CPM activists were killed since 2005. But it's still a victory for the Sanghis because, earlier, it was Communists killing Communists in factional rivalries. The Sanghis fought their way into it and succeeded in proving that they were as good killers as the Communists.

Where the Shah machine went wrong was in overdoing the propaganda bit. The over-doing reached a climax last week when voice clips circulated among migrant workers saying that the state government had started killing Hindi-speakers in large numbers. Many migrants left the state in a hurry. This in a state where the Government had started literary and health programmes for migrant labour. Special textbooks such as Hamari Malayalam aimed at making them familiar with the local language. An insurance scheme was also launched for them. Locals who know all this saw the exaggerations of BJP propaganda as crude and as an affront to Kerala people as a whole. The party lost more than it gained.

As the BJP counts its losses, the Congress in Karnataka is giggling over a faux pas committed by B.S. Yeddyurappa and union minister Ananth Kumar; unaware that the recorder was on, they exchanged secrets about internal bribery in the BJP. The voices have been tested and certified as genuine and now the leaders are trying to figure out how to escape from the mess.

These are less than achche din for the BJP. No longer a spotless white dove, it is now seen as much prone to promoting family as the Congress was. Its tendency to be overly belligerant, antagonistic and quarrelsome is going against it. And the overall scene is grim with falling growth figures and rising joblessness. As the poet asked: Comforter, where, where is your comforting?

Monday, October 9, 2017

It's easy to condemn racist supremacists in America; but remember communal supremacists are no different

The mass murder of people at a music concert in Las Vegas last week and the racial savagery that rocked Charlottesville earlier must not be dismissed as far-away things that do not concern us. They are part of the ideological terrorism that has gripped large parts of the world, including India. The name of the game is hatred. Multicultural nations are the principal theatres of this war because that is where one group wants other groups reduced to nothingness. In America and Europe the war is ethnic. In India it is communal.

The Las Vegas killer was a well-to-do loner who had amassed a small mountain of firearms over an extended period-- typical of those in affluent societies who, in their loneliness, start hating things around them. He must have felt tremendous power as he collected those weapons and when he killed some 60 country music listeners.

Group hatred is more sinister. The rioting in Charlottesville a few weeks earlier was a mob affair, hundreds of white people ideologically fired up to put down non-white races in a bid "to take our country back". The names of the groups that unleashed the violence told their own tale: No to Marxism in America, Unite the Right, Patriot Prayer, Vanguard America. They all came together to hold a White Lives Matter rally in Charlottesville.

It was a throwback to the days of the American civil war, literally. That was a war about perpetuating slavery. Abraham Lincoln got elected in 1860 on a plank of stopping the expansion of slavery. Seeing that as an unacceptable agenda, seven slave-rich states in the south declared secession from the United States. Four more joined them later. They formed a Confederate Government. The United States declared it illegal. The two waged a war that lasted four years. It ended when Confederate General Robert Lee surrendered to the US forces.

With that everything seemed settled. But the subsequent assassination of Lincoln showed that the seeds of white-black hatred were embedded in people's minds. Southern states continued to make life hell for blacks. The civil rights movement gathered pace in the 20th century. Then Martin Luther King, its leading light, was also assassinated. But blacks won legal rights progressively across the United States.

Why has the Confederate philosophy come alive again? Two years ago a white supremacist opened fire in a black church in South Carolina, killing nine people. He wore a flag of the old Confederate Army. Which in turn made liberal whites start a campaign against old Confederate symbols. A grand statue of Gen. Robert Lee stood in the centre of a park in Charlottesville. Moves to demolish it brought enraged white supremacists to the streets, battle-ready. The city exploded with violence.

It is important to note that early moves against Confederate memorials had passed off unnoticed. Only after Donald Trump's rise as President did the supremacists take to the streets spitting venom. In his freewheeling comments, Trump made one point that sounded historically sensible. He said that the idea of removing Confederate symbols was foolish. He was right because the Confederate Army, the Civil War and slavery are all parts of the history of the United States. There is no use pretending that they did not happen. Trying to erase them is like saying that the Taj Mahal in Agra is not a tourist attraction because it is a Muslim musoleum and does not reflect Indian culture.

However, Trump did not stop with decrying the symbol removers. He made various comments that backed the ultra-right white supremacists prominent among whom was the Grand Wizard of the old Ku Klux Klam, the organisation that made the lynching of Negroes a part of contemporary history in the US.

There is no doubt that dark forces have come out into the open because they see Donald Trump's election to the presidency as a sign of approval for their viewpoint. They see him as a supporter in the cause of turning America into an "all-white ethnostate". Their programme includes what they call the "White Baby Challenge", a movement to increase Caucasian fertility as an antidote to the "ghetto culture" of the blacks.Sounds familiar?

Stop for a moment before dismissing these as contemptible concepts of a contemptible racist civilisation in America. The sentiments behind their actions are alive in our country as well. And they have come to the fore in aggressive self-assertion in the wake of an extremist ideology scoring an election victory. The bell tolls not just for America.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

BJP's image dims with economic disruption; Rahul's image glows with US tour. This is Sonia's chance to score big

The Congress Party published full-page advertisements in New York to announce a Rahul Gandhi meeting there. It made history by including, alongside the pictures of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, those of Lal Bahadur Shastri and P.V.Narasimha Rao. Shastri was never recognised during the Sonia years while Narasimha Rao was actively ostracised. To give the non-person that was Rao all these years a place now in the galaxy suggests something of an internal revolution.

Is there one? Is the Congress finally acknowledging the need to re-invent itself if it is to have an address in Narendra Modi's India? Rahul Gandhi's American tour was itself a pointer to the party's willingness to do new things. It was essentially a tour of intellectual America by a man considered uniquely un-intellectual. Apparently he made efforts to catch up. Early photographs showed him in Silicon Valley flanked by IT wizard Sam Pitroda, author-diplomat Shashi Tharoor and savvy Mumbaikar Milind Deora, all practitioners of the Kalam art of igniting minds.

Whether it was their influence, or the bracing holiday weather of California, or the compulsions imposed by Modi's relentless march, Rahul Gandhi rose to unexpected heights, impressing university crowds that are usually hard to impress. The key tactic was to compliment the enemy where necessary and to acknowledge mistakes on his own side. He praised Modi's communication skills and also his Make In India programme. The focus of this policy, he said thoughtfully, should be on small and medium businesses which do not get access to finance and the legal system. If this was done, Make In India would be a powerful idea, said Rahul. Frank, balanced, informed.

He was just as frank when he said that the Congress Party had developed "a certain amount of arrogance" at one time, that some concepts of UPA-2 had use-by date ten years old. The only off-colour remark was that dynasty "is the way India runs". That's not the way India runs right now. And it's fatuous to compare private industrial dynasties with contrived political dynasties. That slip-up apart, Rahul's American tour was a success. This was proved when Smriti Irani was scared into calling him "a failed dynast".

However, Rahul's success in the US is unlikely to help him or the Congress. The big problem that makes rejuvenation hard for the Congress is the internal fight between the old generation and the young. This is a unique Indian problem. In civilised democracies presidents and prime ministers serve their term, then leave it to others. Obama is still young and active, but he is not manoeuvring to become President again.

In our country, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati still imagine that the nation needs them. Lalu Prasad, discredited and legally debarred from public office, is convinced that Bihar and India itself will be the poorer without his services. Oommen Chandy, caught in a maze of scandals that brought humiliation to his party, insists on serving the people. Political leaders never see what others see.

In the Congress, Rahul Gandhi brought in some new faces. Some of them were miserable failures, like Arun Yadav in Madhya Pradesh. But some did well, like K.C.Venugopal who replaced Digvijay Singh as the in-charge in Karnataka. (Digvijay Singh and before him Gulab Nabi Azad had contributed mightily to the devaluation of the Congress in Karnataka because they became patron saints of the state's corrupt Congressmen).

Rahul will be unable to move forward unless he takes a good chunk of the veterans with him. Veterans who still have clout must be in, like Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh. Those with poor track record must be sidelined, like Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan. State-wise, personalised adjustments, patiently canvassed and carefully implemented, can give the Congress a new look, essential for a new future.

Rahul Gandhi cannot bring this about. Sonia Gandhi can because the old guard is beholden to her. She can make them accept a restructuring by telling them that without the infusion of some new blood and new thinking, the Congress will sink. This is perhaps the only chance she will get. The gap between words and deeds under the BJP Government's dispensation, the many policy breakdowns of recent years and the economic dislocation that has become too serious for the Government to hide have created a situation where the BJP is no longer the unstoppable force it seemed at first. By uniting the old guard and the younger leaders who have proved themselves, Sonia Gandhi can make history in 2019. This is her moment.

Monday, September 25, 2017

In a world of bullies, tiny Kim now equals mighty Trump; What if one makes a small miscalculation? It's scary

Kim Jong-un is said to be unpredictable and half mad. Donald Trump is known to be unpredictable and often acts like half mad. Both have nuclear missiles with intercontinental range. North Korea's latest muscle-flexing was so scary that Trump said he might be forced to destroy North Korea. The foreign minister of North Korea replied that he had heard "sounds of a dog barking". More hurting perhaps was German Chancellor Angela Markel's criticism of Trump's trumpeteering. "Any form of military solution", she said, "is totally inappropriate".

We now have a clear picture of the conundrum into which these unpredictable half-mad gentlemen have led the world. To put it another way, we can now see the cleverness with which Kim and his tiny country have cornered the world's mightiest military behemoth. May be the funny-looking dictator is not as mad as we are told. May be there is a method in his madness.

To see the nuclear annihilation threat in perspective, we should recognise the Kim family as contemporary history's most successful political dynasty, lasting 72 years as of now with the third generation in charge. Kim Il-sung, a guerilla fighter against the Japanese who was trained by Russians became the leader of the northern half of the country when Korea became free at the end of the war.

He invented a personality cult, projecting himself as equal to Marx, Lenin and Stalin. History books were re-written to give him a divine origin. If his pictures were printed on cheap paper, the printers were punished. Newspapers carrying pictures of him were not to be used as wrapping paper. He assumed the title of Great Leader and developed his own ideology called Juche (self-reliance).

Kim No. 1 died in 1994 and his son Kim Jong-il took over. His was a desultory reign with the economy going down and a famine hitting the people in 1998. But he oversaw the country's first nuclear step with a detonation in 2006. He died in 2011 and his son Kim Jong-un took control. Not that the dynasty had no critics. All the three Kims were ruthless in eliminating potential rivals through execution, torture and banishment into labour camps. Some estimates say that there are about 120,000 political prisoners in the country today.

Kim No. 3, currently facing Trump, has an obesity problem that's uncontrolled (he weighs more than 200 pounds). He is said to have heart problems that felled his father and grandfather. But he is not just a playboy. Schooled in Switzerland, he is comfortable with French, German and English. He loves racing cars, football and pop music. Additionally, he is an ardent student of military history and strategy. Under him North Korea has seen modern consumer culture spreading. Agriculture has picked up, farmers are no longer slaves but share croppers. Special economic zones have been developed. Overall prosperity has increased.

And of course the nuclear capability of the country has grown by leaps. Obviously he is smart enough to know that if he drops a bomb in the wrong place, he and his country will be wiped out and the world will not moan for him. Like other nuclear powers, he must be seeing those lethal weapons as a protective shield rather than as a conquering device. But he wants his nuclear pile to be equal to that of the US. Clearly he has the contacts necessary to do so. In 2004, two years before the first detonation in the reign of Kim No. 2, Pakistan's nuclear scientist, A.Q.Khan, had admitted to have transferred the technology to North Korea. There must have been other players, too. And why not? Unknown players helped Israel secretly to amass a still-secret nuclear stockpile. What's good for Tom must be good for Dick and Harry as well.

Israel went nuclear as insurance against its enemies. North Korea had the same motivation, the main enemy being the US which led the Korean war against the North. Enemies of the US who had no insurance met with horrible deaths. Saddam Hussein was trapped in an underground hole and eventually hanged before TV cameras. And all that on the basis of a lie -- that Saddam had developed weapons of mass destruction.

Well, here's North Korea proudly displaying weapons of mass destruction. Even the bombasting Trump given to bombastic threats is unable to strike.So Kim No. 3 has won so far. Bullies produce bullies. But if one of them makes a miscalculation, all of us go up in smoke. Scary indeed.

Monday, September 18, 2017

How 'Scoundrel Christ' betrayed his twin brother Jesus; A laboured re-telling that fails to impress

You are sure to hit the best-seller list if you write a book with the title The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. New versions of old religious legends are today an industry in itself. Some religions are too rigid to accept such liberties. But Christianity and Hinduism seem to be fertile ground for free-thinkers.

The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman was published in 2010. This is one instance where the familiar disclaimer, "This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance... is coincidental" is indeed superfluous. But you will be disappointed if you expect juicy blasphemy by a non-believer. Pullman is a believer and the blasphemy is disguised as humour.

And there is only a small bit of it. Christians brought up on the idea of Immaculate Conception will be outraged by Pullman's rather entertaining version of the birth of Jesus. In this version, Mary, 16 years old, allowed into her room at night a young man who whispered through the window that he was an angel. He said, "you are going to conceive a child". And she said, "But my husband is away". And he said, "But the Lord wants it to happen at once". It did. When he came home and heard the news, Joseph, so old that he "had not touched her" during their marriage, cried bitterly. He was consoled by Mary who said: "I've done no wrong. I've never been touched by a man. It was an angel that came to me".

In the mood for a little more blasphemy? Well, author Pullman says that Mary had twins -- Jesus who was healthy and boisterous and Christ who was a weakling. As time passed, "there came more brothers and sisters". Pullman slips into what must be taken as straight humour (without blasphemy) when he starts dealing with the miracles attributed to Jesus. The well-loved story of water turning into wine is a case in point. In Pullman's re-telling, Jesus first feigned innocence when he was told, in the middle of a wedding reception, that they had run out of wine. Then "he took the chief steward aside and spoke to him, and soon the servants discovered more wine". The author's line: The steward had hidden the wine hoping to sell it and "Jesus had shamed him into honesty". So much for miracles.

The thesis of Pullman's narrative is that corporate interests had seen the promise of building a big institution, the church, on the foundations of Jesus's popularity. They recruited his twin brother Christ who betrayed Jesus and helped the corporate plotters. Rather far-fetched a stroy for believers to accept, and too outlandish for others to comprehend. This is one of those books where the author was fired up with a title but could not weave a story to match it.

The Indian tradition is too liberal to allow much scope for blasphemy. See how the Charvaka school of materialism finds acceptance despite its rejection of notions like karma, moksha, the vedas and the very idea of God. When Ramanand Sagar brought the Ramayana to television in 1987, he took liberties the camera allowed: Arrows would stop midair, Goddess Saraswathi could be seen inside Kumbhakarna's mouth making him say nidra instead of indra. All 78 parts of the serial were artificial and melodramatic. But people would have a bath, wear fresh clothes and sit reverentially before their TV sets to watch Hanuman leela and Sita swayamvara.

Greater sophistication arrived with the entry of Devdutt Pattanaik and Amish Tripathi. Inevitably different people have reacted differently to them. Some believe that Pattanaik trivialises Hindu philosophy, a reference perhaps to volumes like Fun in Devlok and The Sita Colouring Book. Tripathi began by re-imagining Shiva at trilology length, then started reconstructing Sita as a warrior princess. Nobody objects to the liberties he takes with the storyline and characterisation. That's because the underlying element of devotion is intact. An atheist, Tripathi turned religious as the books seized him.

It may be difficult for us to see Sita as Ravana's killer. But she was Ravana's daughter in another re-telling. A.K.Ramanujan's 300 Ramayanas was enlightening in that sense though Hindutva zealots got it removed from the history syllabus in Delhi University. How can petty minds erase truths from history? With the likes of Tripathi at work, there will be 400 Ramayanas soon. Can zealots keep pace with the march of writerly imagination? And the unstoppable push of marketing? Sita and Rama will endure after Philip Pullman's Jesus and Christ are forgotten.